Metabolic erosion primarily through mutation accumulation, and not tradeoffs, drives limited evolution of substrate specificity in Escherichia coli

PLoS Biol. 2014 Feb 18;12(2):e1001789. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001789. eCollection 2014 Feb.


Evolutionary adaptation to a constant environment is often accompanied by specialization and a reduction of fitness in other environments. We assayed the ability of the Lenski Escherichia coli populations to grow on a range of carbon sources after 50,000 generations of adaptation on glucose. Using direct measurements of growth rates, we demonstrated that declines in performance were much less widespread than suggested by previous results from Biolog assays of cellular respiration. Surprisingly, there were many performance increases on a variety of substrates. In addition to the now famous example of citrate, we observed several other novel gains of function for organic acids that the ancestral strain only marginally utilized. Quantitative growth data also showed that strains with a higher mutation rate exhibited significantly more declines, suggesting that most metabolic erosion was driven by mutation accumulation and not by physiological tradeoffs. These reductions in growth by mutator strains were ameliorated by growth at lower temperature, consistent with the hypothesis that this metabolic erosion is largely caused by destabilizing mutations to the associated enzymes. We further hypothesized that reductions in growth rate would be greatest for substrates used most differently from glucose, and we used flux balance analysis to formulate this question quantitatively. To our surprise, we found no significant relationship between decreases in growth and dissimilarity to glucose metabolism. Taken as a whole, these data suggest that in a single resource environment, specialization does not mainly result as an inevitable consequence of adaptive tradeoffs, but rather due to the gradual accumulation of disabling mutations in unused portions of the genome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics*
  • Carbohydrate Metabolism
  • Culture Media
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / genetics
  • Mutagenesis
  • Mutation
  • Oxygen Consumption


  • Culture Media

Grant support

This work was supported by by the Department of Defense (W911NF-12-1-0390), and NL thanks the US National Science Foundation for a graduate research fellowship. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.